Learning from the Latter-Day Saints, Part II

In the first part of this article, I attempted to show how Latter-Day Saints relate to doctrine in a robustly positive sense, seeing it not as mere “head knowledge” or a burdensome inheritance from the past, but as a path for life. This pragmatic approach to doctrine is commonplace within the Latter-Day Saint community, so much so that one can almost be forgiven for thinking that the tradition is bereft of, or at least uninterested in, the speculative and mystical elements that characterize other Christian communities. In fact, at least one Latter-Day Saint theologian, James E. Faulconer, has suggested this might even be a strength of the LDS Church. “…[T]he most important reason that Latter-Day Saints have done little toward giving an intellectual clarification of revelation,” he writes, “is that our experience of religion is fundamentally practical and, so, does not lend itself to systematic theological reflection.”[1]

I am not convinced this is true, and it seems to me that Faulconer’s position risks overlooking the vast expanse of theological speculation available to Latter-Day Saints. Some of this material, for instance, is on display in William Phelp’s hymn If You Could Hie to Kolob, which amply demonstrates that Latter-Day Saint metaphysics is as bold as it is creative. Joseph Smith may have lived and taught at a time when people were hungry for concrete, empirical knowledge of God,[2] but he had a pronounced philosophical side as well, one that deepened and matured as he neared the end of his life. Along with other Latter-Day Saint thinkers, such as Brigham Young, Orson Pratt and Parley Pratt, the elder Joseph Smith dedicated significant time and energy to re-thinking a number of theological topics, including the relationship of spirit to matter, the possibility of premortal existence, the presence of gender and personal relations within the Godhead, the hierarchy of the heavenly kingdoms, the eternal telos of men and women, and much, much more.

Today, Latter-Day Saints charmingly refer to many of these areas of speculation as “deep doctrine,” and within the faith and practice of the LDS Church, conversations about these subjects continue to invite members to reflect on the depth and beauty of their faith. Doctrine, seen from this vantage, is more than a path for life: it is also an invitation into the life of God.

Deep Doctrine as an Invitation to Mystery

In my experience, few, if any, orthodox Christians speak routinely of a deposit of deep doctrine within the faith, but for many Latter-Day Saints, this is a familiar and comfortable phrase. Deep doctrine encompasses all of the more enigmatic teachings of the faith, and the subject invokes feelings ranging from curiosity and humility to unrestrained awe and wonder at the glory of God. Of course, not all Latter-Day Saints agree on the proper place of deep doctrine in the spiritual life. As with any community, postures toward such questions vary by temperament. Nevertheless, the presence of deep doctrine, both in the Scriptures and in the teachings of the LDS Church’s Prophets, is uncontested, and these ideas are not generally viewed as obstacles or problems, but rather as precious revelations that rightly prompt continued study, prayer and spiritual exploration.

Once, during a paternity leave, I invited two Latter-Day Saint missionaries into my living room for a cold glass of lemonade and theological conversation. I was especially curious about their interpretation of William Phelps’ hymn, so I asked about their attitude towards deep doctrine. To my surprise, both young men were willing to share quite freely and candidly. For one, pondering deep doctrine was like looking at calculus equations when you were still learning basic algebra. You might not understand all of it, he admitted, but at least you realize you are part of a much bigger world than you imagined. The other suggested deep doctrine was like a well. When work and friends (and even missionary activities) tire you out, it’s inwardly refreshing to draw water up out of the depths of deep doctrine and find solace and inspiration in the majesty of God.

This, I think, is an important insight. For Latter-Day Saints, deep doctrine doesn’t simply refer to recherché aspects of their faith. It also speaks of the power of doctrines to, as one Latter-Day Saint thinker has put it, “affect the heart and mind deeply.” Precisely because deep doctrines are vast and mysterious – because they do not yield their treasures readily or easily, but require patience and contemplation to absorb – they are doctrines which can invite spiritual transformation and cause believers to inhabit the world in new ways. This is one of the reasons why Latter-Day Saints cherish regular study and see the life of the mind as a means of communion with God. “To be learned is good,” 2 Nephi 9:29 reminds us, “if [the learned] hearken unto the counsels of God.”

Deep Doctrine as Devotion

Many Christians, I believe, can learn from this approach to doctrine. Too often, our opportunities for study are divorced from prayer and devotional life. Sometimes, they even hinder it. When we preach or present on deep and mysterious doctrines such as the Trinity or the Incarnation, do we speak with the same sense of awe and reverence that animates Latter-Day Saints when they contemplate deep doctrine? Are we capable of seeing the doctrines of the orthodox Christian faith as invitations to a deeper and more profound communion with God, or are they merely religious ideas ensconced in our heads?

I am, of course, sensitive to the pastoral realities of this conversation – some of our worshippers come having had negative experiences in churches that imposed doctrine in a heavy-handed and authoritarian fashion – but my interactions with the Latter-Day Saint tradition suggest that it is possible for individuals and communities to approach doctrine in a more open, expansive and even mystical way. Doctrine need not be the imposition of what one has to believe. When taken in its best sense, doctrine can be viewed as what one gets to believe. In this way, doctrine may be received as a gift. It can give life. Doctrine has the ability to open us to new and greater worlds of truth, goodness and beauty.

If this is so, then the study of doctrine should not be swept aside in any community of Christian faith, be it liberal, conservative or somewhere in-between. Doctrine matters. Not only does doctrine provide a path for life in the world, but it can also beckon our hearts and minds to look beyond the world. When doctrine moves us in this way, it becomes a gateway to devotion. Latter-Day Saints – insofar as they embody a more curious, more contemplative vision of the “deep” possibilities inherent in doctrine – offer a model for prayerfully approaching the orthodox Creeds and sharing them afresh with the world.

Concluding Thoughts

I know that orthodox Christians and Latter-Day Saints part ways on many substantial theological questions. I also know there is much on which we can agree. In particular, when it comes to the role doctrine ought to play in our life and faith, my sense is that our two communities can agree wholeheartedly. If the concept of doctrine is beset by a poor reputation in some communities, it is only because some Christians relate poorly to doctrine. Doctrine need not suggest intellectual rigidity or a lack of spiritual imagination. The study of doctrine can be filled with awe and wonder.

Part of this stems from the fact that there is always more for us to study and learn, and what we do learn we necessarily learn imperfectly. If we come to accept this truth fully, the study of doctrine might even help to make us humble. No doctrine, after all, is meant to comprehend, much less contain, the glory of God. Doctrine exegetes a community’s experience of God, allowing that knowledge to flourish and bear fruit in the lives of individuals, but doctrine never exhausts the Divine Life. As William Phelps writes movingly in the third verse of If You Could Hie to Kolob,

The works of God continue,

And worlds and lives abound;

Improvement and progression

Have one eternal round.

For me, this is the most cherished insight I’ve gleaned from my study of the Latter-Day Saints. We live in a universe teeming with love and life, and “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9). Truly, all those who profess to follow Jesus Christ are called to return again and again to “the very points of His doctrine” inasmuch as we have been led to understand them – allowing ourselves to grow, stretch, question, and open to greater mystery, so that, in the end, we may delight not in mere teaching and learning alone, but in the reality of God Himself.

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Brian Rebholtz

Brian Rebholtz

Brian L. Rebholtz is the Rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Auburn, CA. (saintlukesauburn.org) He holds a B.A. in Religion and Anthropology from the University of New Hampshire, a M.A. in Christian Spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, and a M.Div from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific. His interests include Bible design, homiletics, metaphysics and the spiritual aspirations of human beings. He is married to Catherine, a small animal veterinarian, and lives in a home filled with books, animals and children.

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